Friday, March 19, 2004
Interior DBs toward bottom of food chain
By Len Pasquarelli ESPN.com
Even after being kicked to the curb by the Tampa Bay Bucs, having devoted 11 seasons to the team and served as one of the catalysts for the turnaround of the onetime moribund franchise, John Lynch is one of the lucky ones.
At least, once he completes his ongoing visits with suitors, Lynch knows that he will have some options. Most important, he will have a new address, and is all but guaranteed a place to finish his stellar career and probably a respectable salary.
In a league that has made obsolete the adage safety first, however, Lynch is a rarity. As usual in free agency, the safety position has lagged behind the pace of signings at other spots, and interior secondary defenders are again struggling in a market that has dramatically ebbed after the initial flurry at the outset.
A five-time Pro Bowl performer, and high-character veteran, Lynch has made four trips this week alone. For some of his peers leaguewide, rattled by the sound of silence in free agency, mobility has been limited to backing the car out of the driveway. Frustrated by the inertia of the market, safeties are logging frequent walker miles, circling the block as they attempt to mentally contend with the anxiety of the unknown.
Yep, once again, safeties seem to be last on the free agency priority pecking order.
"It's maddening, really, staring at the phone and waiting even for an inquiry about my guy," said the agent for one safety who has been a starter for the past three seasons but who has garnered scant interest. "You've just got some positions, like guard or tight end or fullback, where teams are just looking to fill in with competent bodies. And now safety is viewed, it seems, that same way."
Years ago, a veteran Hall of Fame selector, explaining why he refused to vote for all-time NFL interceptions leader Paul Krause for induction into the football shrine, noted that a safety is nothing more than a cornerback who couldn't run. That isn't the case, of course, but the perception that safeties don't make plays, and that cornerback has become one of the game's most premium positions, is pervasive now.
Given the design of many defenses, in which the safety plays more like a linebacker and is being asked to do less in coverage, the position has regressed in some cases. There is a sense, even with the significance Rodney Harrison had in the New England defense in 2003, that safeties are simply interchangeable parts. Teams don't choose safeties high in the draft, don't pay them well, and usually look at the safety position first when they need some salary cap relief.
The upshot is that, for another spring, there are starting-caliber safeties in limbo.
Brock Marion is a two-time Pro Bowler with the Dolphins.
As of Friday, there were no fewer than 11 safeties who started at least eight games in '03 but who remain without jobs and, in some cases, without having generated much interest. The list includes Brock Marion, a former Pro Bowl performer, released by the Dolphins two weeks ago. Although he is 33 years old, Marion has averaged 91 tackles the last four seasons, totaled 18 interceptions, and probably still has a solid year or two left. But teams are not beating down his door or burning up his phone line with opportunities.
Both of Cincinnati's starting safeties from 2003, Rogers Beckett and Mark Roman, are still on the market. Ditto Sam Garnes, former first-round draft pick Antuan Edwards and Reggie Tongue. There are also some younger safeties who might add depth, play in some "nickel" situations and contribute on special teams. But the market is stagnant from an interest and dollars standpoint, and some of the safeties currently unemployed will be fortunate to land jobs even at a modest price.
Arguably the best safety in the unrestricted free agent market, Deon Grant, went from Carolina to Jacksonville on a three-year, $7.25 million contract. There were six corners, by comparison, who received $7 million or more in signing bonuses alone on new deals early in the free agent signing period. Safety Mike Logan, who started every game for Pittsburgh in 2003, signed a new, three-year deal with the Steelers on Thursday that reportedly averages only a little more than $1 million per year. And that's coming off the best season of his career.
When they line up in the secondary, safeties and cornerbacks are separated by perhaps just seven or 10 yards. The financial gap, though, is light-years. Put Rodney Dangerfield in a football uniform, turn back the clock about 60 years, and he would be a safety.
"There's definitely a lack of respect for the position," said Edwards, whose productivity during five seasons with the Green Bay Packers often was affected by injuries. "They ask you to do a lot of things, you know, in a game. But they kind of forget about you when it comes time to pay up."
Just two positions of the 11 designated by the collective bargaining agreement, tight end ($2.612 million) and kicker/punter ($1.611 million), have lower "franchise" tag numbers than safety ($4.113 million), and that is indicative of how safeties are viewed. In time, as teams fill out their roster quotas after the draft, the safeties will get some play in the free agency market. By then, though, cap room will be scarce and offers modest.
Which is why, even in his current situation, John Lynch is the envy of virtually every other safety still looking for work.
Around the league
Let's make this clear: Harold Henderson, the NFL's executive vice president for labor relations, is one of the good guys in the league. Always as candid as he can afford to be, unwaveringly helpful on labor issues, Henderson is a gem. But as chairman of the NFL Management Council, the arm that deals with labor components and contracts, there is a chance Henderson is going to have to answer some tough questions at the upcoming league meetings in Palm Beach, Fla., later this month. We're not going to suggest, as have some of our colleagues, that the Management Council has become a confederacy of the inept. But in essentially losing the Terrell Owens case this week -- and, let's be honest, the settlement brokered by the NFL Players Association goes in the "L" column for the league -- the Management Council continued a dubious streak. Remember a year ago, when the Management Council apprised the New York Jets they didn't have to match on some of the elements of the restricted free agent offer sheet kick returner Chad Morton had signed with the Washington Redskins? Morton filed a grievance, an arbitrator ruled in his favor, and the Jets lost an important weapon. Certainly the Management Council has had some involvement in the Maurice Clarett case, as well. But the manner in which the Owens affair was botched was not only embarrassing but also ruffled the feathers of some owners. And we're not just talking about in San Francisco and Baltimore. There always are going to be situations in which contract language is ambiguous and is interpreted in different ways by different people. Heck, that's why the collective bargaining agreement allows for arbitration and for "special master" cases such as the Owens disagreement. But lately, it seems, the Management Council has been on the wrong end of too many of the contractual nuances. For that matter, the NFLPA's first reaction to the Owens deal was that it didn't have a winning hand, but further parsing of the contract language afforded the union an argument that would have won the approval of "special master" Stephen Burbank had the settlement not been struck. Truth be told, Owens and agent Dave Joseph still screwed up by not filing the player's intention to void the final three seasons of his contract by the date given them by NFLPA officials. They didn't know there would be a loophole through which Owens could escape the trade that sent him to the Ravens. But neither did the Management Council and, in the big picture, that's the bigger oversight.
According to salary documents obtained by ESPN.com, the seven-year contract that Owens signed with the Philadelphia Eagles on Wednesday totals $48.97 million. There is an initial signing bonus of $2.3 million, a roster bonus of $6.2 million that is due by next Wednesday, and an option bonus of $2.5 million in spring 2006. There is also a $5 million roster bonus due in March 2006. The base salaries are $660,000 (for 2004), $3.25 million (2005), $770,000 (2006), $5.5 million (2007), $6.5 million (2008), $7.5 million (2009) and $8.5 million (2010). Workout bonuses are for $5,600 (2004), $6,160 (2005-2006) and $6,720 (2007-2010). Owens' salary cap charge for 2004 is a whopping $7.248 million. In only one season of the deal (2005), when the cap hit dips to $3.889 million, is the cap charge less than $6.5 million.
You can't help but agree with coaches Dennis Erickson of San Francisco and Brian Billick of Baltimore for feeling they got the short end in the Owens settlement. In a league that seems to be moving closer to socialism, and where the squeakiest wheel (and is there any more squeaky than Owens?) gets oiled, both the Ravens and 49ers played by the rules. But the net gain for Baltimore is a fifth-round pick and for the 49ers a defensive end who might need shoulder surgery. If Brandon Whiting is deemed damaged goods, the 49ers will take a third-round pick from Philadelphia, instead of the veteran end. The 49ers were savvy enough to include that caveat in the trade settlement. Erickson on the way the deal eventually worked out: "It depends on the way you look at it. At the start, before anything happened, we weren't supposed to get anything. Brandon Whiting is a pretty good player we can use. Obviously, we would like to have the second-round pick [the 49ers were to have gotten from Baltimore]. But something to me is better than nothing."
Speaking of Erickson, he is keeping a close watch on the quarterback situations in both Cincinnati and Seattle. Word is that, if either Jon Kitna or Trent Dilfer became free, the 49ers would pursue them immediately. The plan remains to go with Tim Rattay, former caddie to Jeff Garcia, as the starter. But there is no experience behind Rattay, and it seems Erickson would like to get a safety net of sorts in place, just in case he needs a steadying hand on and off the field. There is no indication that Dilfer will be released, but Cincy has turned the starting job over to Carson Palmer, and the Bengals are gagging over the $3.5 million base salary Kitna is owed for 2004. Kitna's new agent, Mike Moye, has sent off a contract extension proposal to Bengals executives, but they haven't responded to it.
On the subject of quarterbacks, after Tennessee backup Billy Volek decides where he will sign, there won't be much left in the market. And that is bad news for franchises still seeking to bolster the depth chart. By unofficial count, there are nine teams that don't have a proven backup, and that is worrisome, several coaches and personnel directors conceded to ESPN.com this week. "We've got to get that settled and it's a priority for us, believe me, but look at the [bad players] out there in the quarterback pool," said a coach in the market for a proven No. 2 guy. The unrestricted free agents include players such as Jeff Blake, Ty Detmer, Damon Huard, Rob Johnson, Doug Johnson, Doug Pederson, Chris Redman and perhaps Neil O'Donnell, if he can be lured out of retirement again. Uh, not exactly an attractive bunch, right?
If nothing else, the San Diego Chargers now have people guessing about what they might do with the first overall choice in the draft, as the team publicly announced this week that it will stage private workouts for the top three quarterback prospects:Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers. Now any team in the top 10 that needs a quarterback, such as the New York Giants, will at least have to consider the possibility of a trade-up. There is always the chance the Chargers will stay put and choose a quarterback. But think about this: San Diego could drop down to the fourth or fifth spot overall and still get an offensive tackle such as Robert Gallery or a wide receiver to replace the departed David Boston in the lineup.
Anyone who witnessed the appearance this week of Cincinnati tailback Corey Dillon on Fox's "Best Damn Sports Show Period," saw a desperate man saying some desperate things in a desperate effort to get his sorry self traded. Preferably, as evidenced by his choice of a vintage Bo Jackson game jersey, to the Oakland Raiders. But while Dillon stopped just shy of fully inserting his boots into his pie hole, he might have cost himself some money, should Bengals officials press the issue. Here's why: When he signed his $25 million-plus contract with Cincinnati before the 2001 season, the deal included the controversial "loyalty clause" the Bengals were writing into contracts. The clause gives the franchise the right to attempt to recover all or a part of a signing bonus if a player makes publicly disparaging remarks about the club. While he ripped right offensive tackle Willie Anderson and tailback Rudi Johnson directly, Dillon skirted around taking team management to task, although he wasn't particularly flattering in discussing head coach Marvin Lewis. Discerning whether Dillon violated the terms of the "loyalty clause" likely is a matter of interpretation and one the Bengals, who would prefer just to trade Dillon and be rid of the headache he has become, probably won't pursue. But it is an issue that hangs out there and that the Bengals can use as leverage. As confirmed here last week, the Raiders continue to pursue Dillon but have not offered a third-round choice for him, as some media reports have indicated.
Just what the 2004 draft needed, right, even more wide receiver prospects turning in terrific performances in their individual campus workouts. Led perhaps by Ohio State standout Michael Jenkins, a huge (6-feet-4, 217 pounds) and aggressive wideout most viewed as a second-round choice until this week, a cadre of receivers have really upgraded their stock. Jenkins torched the 40-yard sprint, with times of 4.38 and 4.42, and demonstrated better pure receiving skills than some scouts felt he possessed. Some are now talking about him as a legitimate first-rounder. Devery Henderson of LSU might conceivably be chosen ahead of more high profile teammate Michael Clayton after clocking under 4.4 in both his 40s this week. Another receiver with huge physical dimensions, P.K. Sam of Florida State, twice ran in the mid-4.4s. Samie Parker of Oregon, who posted some of the fastest times at the combine last month, duplicated that effort in his "pro day," twice running in the mid-4.3s. And relatively unknown Maurice Mann of Nevada ran a 4.47 and caught the ball flawlessly. As the legion of intriguing wide receivers continues to expand, some teams might rethink their draft strategies since it is now apparent there will be viable candidates at the position into the third round.
One position that figures to result in a lot of shuffling on draft boards over the next few weeks is the cornerback spot. But the consensus, at least for now, is that DeAngelo Hall of Virginia Tech and South Carolina's Dunta Robinson have separated themselves from the rest of the pack. That could change, of course, as cornerbacks continue to work out and scouts further scrutinize the key position. But Hall, who ran a blistering 4.35 at the combine, had a scintillating Thursday workout in Blacksburg, with a 39-inch vertical jump, a long jump of 10 feet, 9 inches, and an incredible time of 3.68 seconds in the "short shuttle" drill. Robinson has run quickly, too, and displayed more natural "ball" skills than most of the other prospects. Coming out of the combine, scouts were talking up Ohio State's Chris Gamble as the No. 1 corner prospect, but his campus workout was fairly pedestrian and there's still the fact he has only played one full season at corner. A guy to keep watching is Will Poole of Southern California, who will be a factor and who rates as a consensus first-round pick.
You always want to congratulate those players who opt to complete their college careers, who stay in school, and don't heed the siren's song of early entry into the NFL draft. But if you're Auburn tailbacks Carnell "Cadillac" Williams and Ronnie Brown right about now, you might be questioning your separate decisions to return to school. The two likely would have been among the top running back prospects in this draft, and that is particularly true now that some high-profile tailbacks have gone through very disappointing campus workouts. That top bunch -- Kevin Jones (Virginia Tech), Greg Jones (Florida State), Steven Jackson (Oregon State) and Chris Perry (Michigan) -- collectively have underwhelmed league scouts. "If just one of them could run in the low-4.5s, I'd be thrilled at this point, but that's not happening," said one personnel director. "It's a slow, slow group, let me tell you." The guess now is that as few as two tailbacks will be chosen in the first round, with the usual run on the position in the second round. Too many teams, it appears, just aren't going to spend first-round money on backs who work out like second-round prospects.
Here's a conundrum: There is still an average of $5.3 million worth of cap room per team in the NFL, as of Friday morning's accounting. But with the unrestricted free agent crop picked clean, there really aren't many remaining players on whom to spend all that money, unless clubs now turn to the restricted pool. The teams with the most remaining cap room: Minnesota, $13.62 million; New Orleans, $12.04 million; Dallas, $10.818 million; Philadelphia, $10.144 million; and Jacksonville, $10.018 million.
Punts: Florida State linebacker Michael Boulware, the brother of Baltimore Ravens star Peter Boulware, had an outstanding campus workout this week. At 6-feet-2 1/8 and 227 pounds, Boulware was clocked at 4.47 and 4.50, prompting a few teams to believe he might actually project as a safety in the NFL. Kansas City again will propose, during the upcoming league meetings, that the NFL add one more playoff team per conference. The measure likely will not pass. Although his agent suggested he would not accept a major reduction from the Atlanta Falcons, classy defensive lineman Travis Hall went from a base salary of $3.1 million for 2004 to total compensation of $1.75 million. He got a signing bonus of $500,000, a roster bonus of $500,000 (cut from $1 million), and a base salary of $750,000. Those moves dropped his cap charge from $6.37 million to $3.67 million. Hall also addressed the 2005 portion of his contract, dropping his cap from $11.5 million to $6.4 million. His base salary went from $7.4 million to $3 million, and a roster bonus of $2 million was chopped in half. Some teams feel that, with second-year pro Lee Suggs now likely to be the starter, the Cleveland Browns will attempt to deal troubled tailback William Green. If that's the case, the Browns won't get much in return, based on the "buyer's market" trades consummated recently in the league. The Bears are likely to ask backup quarterback Chris Chandler to accept a salary reduction or to cut him. The monster contract John Tait signed with Chicago as a "transition" free agent is an incredible deal. But in terms of 2004 compensation, Green Bay left tackle Chad Clifton will earn a tad more. Clifton will pocket $11.535 million this season based on a $10 million signing bonus, a $1 million roster bonus and a base salary of $535,000. Tait will pocket a $3 million signing bonus, $7.5 million roster bonus, base salary of $535,000 and $50,000 workout bonus, for a total of $11.085 million. The Ravens could switch to a 4-3 front if they land defensive tackle Warren Sapp . The Bucs laid out about $9.8 million in 2004 compensation to sign offensive linemen Todd Steussie, Matt Stinchcomb, Derrick Deese and Matt O'Dwyer. Not a bad outlay if esteemed line coach Bill Muir can make something of the bunch. By the way, most of the Tampa Bay deals are contracts that will never be completed because they are structured as two- or three-year contracts that run longer for cap purposes.
The last word: "The offer speaks for itself. It's not an offer, it's a ransom note." -- Rams team president Jay Zygmunt, on a seven-year, $71 million offer, including a $27 million signing bonus, proposed by agent Carl Poston for St. Louis "franchise" offensive tackle Orlando PaceLen Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.